Foucault’s Lectures on Subjectivity and Truth, VIII

Lecture of 1st March, 1981

Foucault highlights the difference between love for women and love for boys, and the value placed on the man-woman love, particularly man-wife love, in antiquity in the period of Hellentistic-Roman philosophy. He focuses on Plutarch’s discussion of love and sex, in the Dialogue on Love with particular reference to Plutarch’s reactions to Greek texts of the classical period like Plato’s Symposium and Euripides’ tragedy Hyppolitus (I presume that is what Foucault is referring to when he mentions a text called Phèdre, the name of the female character in the play, used to name the plays on the same story by Seneca and Racine) and to Stoic influenced texts of his own time on the art of living. It is the texts of his own time, which are more directed towards marriage as the ideal.

Foucault refers to Christian sexual morality as referring first to pagan sexual morality, of that part of it inside pagan thinking most suitable to Christianity, and then developing its own morality in the fourth and fifth centuries based on the idea of flesh. It is the ‘conjugalisation’ of aphrodisia in later pagan thought, which provides a source for Christianity.

Foucault sets up an investigation of the move towards the ideal of the marital couple with thee parts of the Plutarch dialogue. A part devoted towards the debate between love of boys and love of women, including the marriage of young man Bacchon, a song/elegy to love, and a Platonic debate. Bacchon is pursued by men and by a relatively young widow who is nevertheless older than Bacchon. The pursuit by the woman is comic, but refers to a situation in ancient Greece in which infanticide was more directed at female babies than make babies. In consequence there were less women than men making it necessary for some men to ignore social preferences about marrying a younger woman in order to get get married.

Plutarch plays on the way that the widow’s pursuit of the young man imitates the standard pederastic (it is Foucault who refers to ‘pederasty’ here in acknowledgement of the young, beardless, status of the younger man in the socially expected same sex relations of ancient Greece) situation in which the older more experienced and knowledgeable man pursues the younger less educated and less experienced boy. The widow brings the advantages of experience to the marriage, so that advantage the older man offers the boy. So the ideal of marriage grows out of transferring the same advantages for the younger person of associated with an older person as to be found in the pederastic situation. The pederastic-educational situation of the mature man’s relationship with the boy itself, as Foucault discusses in previous lectures, becomes separated from sexual activity over time so that an ideal pedagogical situation emerges in parallel with the ideal marriage that incorporates some part of the pederastic-pedagogical situation.

The man-boy love itself was always defined as against nature (phusis) in the first place, eros was defined as outside nature so that the pederastic relationship is part of a general interest in being apart from nature in some adventurous and even dangerous place. Being outside nature was not always defined as negative in ancient Greece (Foucault is perhaps thinking of the status of gods, heroes, and divine law here. He is also presumably thinking of late 19th century/fin de siècle ‘decadence’ here, just as elsewhere he compare the antique ‘techne’ of the self with Baudelaire, anarchism, and the like).
The attitudes to love and sex revealed in Plutarch also suggest that the value of homogeneity of marriage between man and woman, according to an antique value given to isomorphism, was compared with the adventurousness of heterogeneity in man-boy relations as a competing ideal. The boy love leads to an attitude of surveillance, care and so on, in a care for the other (something like the care for the self, which is the subject matter of the third volume of the History of Sexuality), so an emphasis on virtue rather than pleasure.

Another concern mentioned in Plutarch is that love for women leads to feminisation. This possible critique of man-woman love is answered by the proponents of man-woman love with the suggestion of hypocrisy by the the proponents of man-boy love who pretend to a non-sexual form of community when clearly there is something sexual, and furthermore that sexual love for women is compatible with the less sexual aspects of man-woman conjugal community emphasised by the proponents of man-boy love. This includes discussion of the opposition or rapport between ‘philia’ (non-sexual love/friendship) and sexual relationships. As the beauty of the boy is emphasised by the man-boy love proponents, they are admitting to a desire which is at the base the same as sexual desire for women.

Plutarch brings in Epicurean materialist- corpuscularianism explanations to emphasise the common physical reaction to beauty. If a non-physical love for boys can come out of this, leading us onto pure ideas (as in Plato) then the same must be case for girls. Plutarch emphasises the sameness of love for boys and girls. Love must feature the same end, sexuality referred to as the goddess Aphrodite, as well as eros, the love that does not necessarily include sexual acts. However, that shared telos, and end goal, of love, does not put boy love and girl love on the same level.
Plutarch uses what Foucault refers to as mythical-historical origin to argue that boy love came later in history, because of the appearance of gymnasia and public places of exercise where naked boys could be observed. Foucault adds something he has already referred to, which is that the boy cannot consent to sexual advances in the same way as a girl in ancient Greece, since the boy is going to be a free citizen, which is not compatible with being an object of love.
Plutarch expresses a dominant view in antiquity, which is that even at periods of relative acceptance of boy love, it was considered unnatural, and that over time this became the same as lacking in virtue, and in the possibilities of care. These was transferred to marriage, in which the male-female relation was put on a more egalitarian basis, signified by the positive view of the widow marrying the younger man, while the man-boy relation was condemned as governed by pleasure rather than virtue.

The above refers to Subjectivité et Vérité. Cours au Collège de France, 1980-1981. Eds. François Ewald, Allesandro Fontana and Frédéric Gros. Paris: Seuil/Gallimard, 2014

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